Last week started off quietly enough in California with a minimum of violence on the playgrounds of the junior high schools, since all the kids were apparently off in the desert trying to pull Palm Springs down, brick by adobe brick. With the school grounds empty it was up to somebody to provide a little mayhem, and the challenge was accepted by the Oakland Seals and the Los Angeles Kings, the eighth and 10th best teams in the National Hockey League. There are those who might suggest they were only contesting the championship of California, these being youthful teams with all the indecision, lack of concentration and misdirected exuberance of youth, but the series was, indeed, part of the playoffs for the treasured Stanley Cup.
Since the previous Sunday night the Kings and the Seals had been tied at two matches apiece in their best-of-seven series. The players and the coaches and the general managers and the owners and the hard core of about 7,000 fans reassembled at the fine new Oakland Coliseum Wednesday night to resume the conflict. The result may be described as a tepid affair. Mike Laugh-ton, one of the better young Seal forwards, scored in the first minute or so. Gary Croteau, a youth who had only recently joined the Kings, evened things up as the first period was waning. Nobody fought. Nobody got penalized for anything. As the game wore on, the Seals scored three more times, while the Kings skated around prettily, assuming a rather dégagé attitude toward the whole affair. Poor Gerry Desjardins, the Kings' pudgy and cheerful goalie, who had been named the rookie of the half year at mid-season by the NHL coaches, was not just deflecting shots, he was fighting for survival. At times he must have thought the Seals had a Bofors gun as they gathered in front of his goal and whacked pucks in his direction. So the final score was 4-1 and, with the Seals needing only one more victory, everybody took a plane to Los Angeles. "We either win tonight," said one King, "or it's back to the pick and shovel."
Coach Red Kelly had a notion about how he might awaken the enthusiasm of his Kings. Kelly, as any ordained hockey fan knows, was one of the great players of the game for 20 years, 19 of which ended in the caldron of Stanley Cup playoffs. To arouse his dreamy youngsters, on the blackboard of the locker room he wrote in very large figures: $3,750. "That," he told them, "is the difference between what you will make if you win this series and what you will make if you don't." Without a doubt, that is what inspired the violence that followed.
The Kings skated out that night breathing enough fire to melt the ice. When these two teams meet it is normally a match-up between the slugger and the boxer—Dempsey against Tunney, the U.S. Army against the Viet Cong. The Seals have the firepower, but the Kings have the defense, with big, tough guys like 220-pound Larry Cahan. Their most effective stratagem is to jar you and bruise you until you are too fagged to get the puck past the jolly rookie, Desjardins.
April 21, 1969
It was some first period. Each team scored three goals and each team took four two-minute penalties for all varieties of rough stuff. Every few minutes the game came to an abrupt halt as the opponents chose one another, gauntlets were flung to the ice and the Forum resembled a Third Avenue saloon on St. Patrick's Day. Up in the stands, King General Manager Larry Regan observed the goings-on with some amazement. "It's not what you would call Stanley Cup hockey," he finally observed.
By the second period the boys had settled down to just playing the game, and Bill Flett, the Kings' ornery wingman, scored what turned out to be their fourth and winning goal. In the scoreless third period there was a good deal of crashing of bodies and banging of heads, and the penalty box was rarely unoccupied, but at least the Kings could forget about their picks and shovels for a few more days.
Afterwards Red Kelly was quite naturally ecstatic. Red is a very sharp dresser, and he stood outside the Kings' locker room in his neatly cut blue suit and pink shirt trying to control the grin that was fighting its way across his face. He had special praise for the opening goal of Ted Irvine, who had been in the doghouse after his performance in Oakland the previous night. He spoke highly of Desjardins and the two men who had just joined the team—Brian Campbell and Croteau. He had praise for his penalty killers, Skip Krake and Jimmy Peters. Then he said a few words about incentive. "No one wants to leave all that money lying around."
Down the hall in the Seals' dressing room, Coach Freddie Glover was in a state of depression that seemed almost manic. Even in victory Glover, who is a darkly intense little man, acts as if he has just received some very bad news from home. In defeat he is inconsolable. "For some reason," he muttered, "we have had this problem all season. We will come up with a bell of a game the way we did last night, and then we just slack off." Glover shook his head. "Maybe it will be better up North. The ice is faster up there."
So it was back to Oakland again on Sunday night for the game that would irretrievably decide it all. More than 9,000 people—the largest audience of the series—showed up, including a noisy bell-ringing claque from Los Angeles. Clearly, ice hockey had some West Coast devotees after all.
Having had three days to contemplate the importance of this game, the players were in no mood for chivalry. The moment the puck was dropped for the first face-off they commenced to assault one another. Eleven penalties were handed out before the first period was over, and at one point the Kings had only three players and a goalie against a full complement of Seals. Even so, the Kings survived the period with a 2-1 lead, thanks to goals by Ted Irvine.
After that it was more like hockey. The Seals kept working and shooting, and every now and then the Kings lapsed into that peculiar habit of theirs of letting the Seals assemble in front of their goal, but fortunately Gerry Desjardins was equal to his task. The Seals just couldn't catch up. In the third period Lowell MacDonald, the Kings' pesky little wingman, found the puck lying unwanted in the middle of the rink, so while everyone watched he took it down the ice and flicked it past the Seals' goalie to build a lead of 4-2. A couple of inconsequential goals later the score was 5-3, the final buzzer had sounded and the Kings were piled all over each other in the middle of the ice in one glorious heap—the champions of California.
Earlier in the week Red Kelly had been trying to describe the frustrations of coaching a group of young men who are just beginning to learn the subtleties of their profession. "Some of them can't skate very well yet," he said. "Some of them can't shoot without taking big long swings with their sticks. Some of them don't know where the other people are. Some of them don't like to go into the corner after the puck with somebody behind them. So you just have to put together a little of this and a little of that and hope maybe you have a complete unit."
For a moment last Sunday night Kelly's frustrations were forgotten. But they seemed likely to return with a jolt in St. Louis early this week as the Kings entered the West final against the Blues, a team superior in all statistics.